Thirty-two years ago tonight one of the sports world’s most infamous events took place on the south side of Chicago.
“Disco Demolition,” a local radio promotion held between games of a White Sox-Tigers doubleheader, encouraged fans to bring their disco albums and records to the historic old ballpark to be blown up in a ceremony overseen by popular local disc jockey Steve Dahl.
Team management hoped for a crowd of 12,000 but instead a raucous turnout of more than 90,000 converged on the stadium literally overrunning the area. By the time Dahl got around to blowing up the pile of records that were accumulated in center field, the affair turned ugly with fans running onto the field and tearing up sod, bases and even seats.
The mess caused Major League Baseball to call off the second game due to unsafe playing conditions and the White Sox were forced to forfeit the game in a night that has left an ugly stain on the franchise to this day.
NASCAR had its version of “Disco Demolition” Saturday night in Kentucky and like the baseball edition; the debacle has given the sport a black eye that won’t be forgotten any time soon.
What was supposed to be Kentucky Speedway’s long awaited moment in the sun for its inaugural Sprint Cup Series race was a disaster with traffic nightmares, parking problems, empty concession stands and limited bathroom facilities just a few of the inconveniences the crowd of 110,000 had to contend with over the weekend.
Simply put the track was not prepared to host an event - or crowd - the size of what showed up on Saturday.
To compound matters the slow response to the disaster and perceived arrogance by Speedway Motorsports Inc. president Bruton Smith, who pointed the finger at local government for not providing necessary infrastructure and support, has not done much in the way to appease fans or help the overall image of the sport.
And before the track finally did release an official apology as well as plan to give replacement tickets to fans at future SMI races or next year’s Quaker State 400, other speedway operators jumped into the fray.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway, less than a two-hour drive from Kentucky, offered disgruntled fans a discount on seats for its upcoming Brickyard 400. Talladega Superspeedway communicated to fans that the track was more than well prepared to handle the 100,000 expected to attend this October’s Sprint Cup race.
And Michigan International Speedway president Roger Curtis distributed a passionate letter to fans saying he was “saddened and embarrassed” by what happened at Kentucky and ensuring customers would be treated right at the upcoming August weekend in the Irish Hills.
If you get a sense that perhaps there isn’t any love lost between Kentucky and some other track’s management teams you’re probably right.
NASCAR’s insistence to not award a Sprint Cup date to Kentucky when the track was first built ten years ago was due in large part to the sanctioning body’s assessment of a potential oversaturation problem in the area. Michigan, Indianapolis, Chicago, Bristol and even Talladega are within relative close proximity to the Sparta, Kentucky facility and in NASCAR’s mind a Cup date would possibly cannibalize ticket sales from tracks already on the schedule.
However it became a moot point when SMI purchased Kentucky and petitioned NASCAR through its realignment policy to move a date from Atlanta.
On paper the decision was a winner for SMI, at least in the short term, as the 110,000 tickets sold for the inaugural race eclipsed what Atlanta’s last March race drew by about 35,000. But those 110k had to come from somewhere and certainly there’s a real possibility more than a few came at the expense of Indy, MIS, Bristol and others.
So perhaps Kentucky’s failure on Saturday night struck a chord with other track officials who didn’t appreciate the potential of their ticket sales being siphoned off coupled with the souring of fans, who may now choose simply to not attend any NASCAR race for fear of a similarly bad experience.
But is the sniping among peers really the best way to put the situation behind and help move the sport back into a better light? I’m not sure NASCAR meant for its “Boys Have at It” mandate to spill over and include track operators.
There are thousands of fans who are trying to decide if putting a NASCAR race on their social calendar is a worthwhile option for their already in short supply dollars. At this point the sport needs all the support it can get from inside the industry to put this embarrassment as far in the rear view mirror as possible.
The reputation of “Disco Demolition” continues to live on more than three decades later. It remains to be seen whether the Kentucky fiasco is forever the track’s legacy or if over time it can be repaired and forgotten.
Odds are it’s going to be a long road to recovery.
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